Wilhelm Dilthey  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Wilhelm Dilthey (November 19, 1833 – October 1, 1911) was a German historian, psychologist, sociologist and hermeneutic philosopher, who held Hegel's Chair in Philosophy at the University of Berlin.1 As a polymathic philosopher, working in a modern research university, Dilthey's research interests revolved around questions of scientific methodology, historical evidence and history's status as a science.2 He could be considered an empiricist, in contrast to the idealism prevalent in Germany at the time, but his account of what constitutes the empirical and experiential differs from British empiricism and positivism in its central epistemological and ontological assumptions, which are drawn from German literary and philosophical traditions.



Dilthey was inspired in part by the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher on hermeneutics, which he helped revive. Both figures are linked to German Romanticism. The school of Romantic hermeneutics stressed that historically embedded interpreters — a "living" rather than a Cartesian or "theoretical" subject — use 'understanding' and 'interpretation', which combine individual-psychological and social-historical description and analysis, to gain a greater knowledge of texts and authors in their contexts.

The process of interpretive inquiry established by Schleiermacher involved what Dilthey called "the Hermeneutic circle," which is the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole. The "general hermeneutics" that Schleiermacher proposed was a combination of the hermeneutics used to interpret Sacred Scriptures (e.g. the Pauline epistles) and the hermeneutics used by Classicists (e.g. Plato's philosophy). Dilthey saw its relevance for the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in contrast with the natural sciences.

Along with Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel and Henri Bergson, Dilthey's work influenced early twentieth-century "Lebensphilosophie" and "Existenzphilosophie."

Dilthey informed the early Martin Heidegger's approach to hermeneutics in his early lecture courses, in which he developed a "hermeneutics of factical life", and in Being and Time. Heidegger grew increasingly more critical of Dilthey, arguing for a more radical 'temporalization' of the possibilities of interpretation and human existence.

In Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method), Hans-Georg Gadamer, influenced by Heidegger, criticised Dilthey's approach to hermeneutics as both overly aesthetic and subjective as well as method-oriented and "positivistic." According to Gadamer, Dilthey's hermeneutics is insufficiently concerned with the ontological event of truth and inadequately considers the implications of how the interpreter and the interpreter's interpretations are not outside of tradition but occupy a particular position within it, i.e., have a temporal horizon.


Dilthey was very interested in what we would call sociology today, although he strongly objected to being labelled as such as the sociology of his time was mainly that of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He objected to their dialectical/evolutionist assumptions about the necessary changes that all societal formations must go through, as well as their narrowly natural-scientific methodology. Comte's idea of positivism was, according to Dilthey, one-sided and misleading. Dilthey did, however, have good things to say about the neo-Kantian sociology of Georg Simmel, with whom he was a colleague at the University of Berlin. Simmel himself was later an associate of Max Weber, the primary founder of sociological antipositivism. J. I. Hans Bakker has argued that Dilthey should be considered one of the classical sociological theorists due to his own influence in the foundation of nonpositivist "verstehende" sociology and the "verstehen" method.

Jürgen Habermas was also influenced by Dilthey, most notably in the Positivismusstreit of the early 1960s and his early work Knowledge and Human Interests (1968).

The Distinction between the Natural Sciences and the Human Sciences

A life-long concern was to establish a proper theoretical and methodological foundation for the "human sciences" (e.g. history, law, literary criticism), distinct from, but equally "scientific" as, the "natural sciences" (e.g. physics, chemistry). He suggested that all human experience divides naturally into two parts: that of the surrounding natural world, in which "objective necessity" rules, and that of inner experience, characterized by "sovereignty of the will, responsibility for actions, a capacity to subject everything to thinking and to resist everything within the fortress of freedom of his/her own person".

Dilthey strongly rejected using a model formed exclusively from the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), and instead proposed developing a separate model for the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). His argument centered around the idea that in the natural sciences we seek to explain phenomena in terms of cause and effect, or the general and the particular; in contrast, in the human sciences, we seek to understand in terms of the relations of the part and the whole. In the social sciences we may also combine the two approaches, a point stressed by German sociologist Max Weber. His principles, a general theory of understanding or comprehension (Verstehen) could, he asserted, be applied to all manner of interpretation ranging from ancient texts to art work, religious works, and even law. His interpretation of different theories of aesthetics in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was preliminary to his speculations concerning the form aesthetic theory would take in the twentieth century.

Both the natural and human sciences originate in the context or "nexus of life" (Lebenszusammenhang), a concept which influenced the phenomenological account of the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), but are differentiated in how they relate to their life-context. Whereas the natural sciences abstract away from it, it becomes the primary object of inquiry in the human sciences.

Dilthey defended his use of the term Geisteswissenschaft (literally, "spiritual science") by pointing out that other terms such as "social science" and "cultural sciences" are equally one-sided and that the human spirit is the central phenomenon from which all others are derived and analyzable. For Dilthey, like Hegel, "spirit" (Geist) has a social rather than an occult meaning. It is not an abstract intellectual principle or a disembodied entity but refers to the individual's life in its concrete social-historical context.


Dilthey developed a typology of the three basic Weltanschauungen, or World-Views, which he considered to be "typical" (comparable to Max Weber's notion of "ideal types") and conflicting ways of conceiving of man's relation to Nature.

This approach influenced Karl Jaspers' Psychology of Worldviews as well as Rudolf Steiner.


Dilthey's ideas should be examined in terms of his similarities and differences with Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, members of the Baden School of Neo-Kantianism. Dilthey was not a Neo-Kantian, but had a profound knowledge of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, which deeply influenced his thinking. But whereas Neo-Kantianism was primarily interested in epistemology on the basis of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Dilthey took Kant's Critique of Judgment as his point of departure. An important debate between Dilthey and the Neo-Kantians concerned the "human" as opposed to "cultural" sciences, with the Neo-Kantians arguing for the exclusion of psychology from the cultural sciences and Dilthey for its inclusion as a human science.

Further reading

  • Rudolf A. Makkreel, Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  • Jos de Mul, The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works are being published by Princeton University Press under the editorship of the noted Dilthey scholars Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Published volumes include:

  • Volume I: Introduction to the Human Sciences
  • Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences
  • Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History
  • Volume V: Poetry and Experience

Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften are currently published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht:

  • Volume 1: Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften
  • Volume 2: Weltanschauung und Analyse des Menschen seit Renaissance und Reformation
  • Volume 3: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Geistes
  • Volume 4: Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels und andere Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des Deutschen Idealismus
  • Volume 5: Die geistige Welt
  • Volume 6: Die geistige Welt
  • Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
  • Volume 8: Weltanschauungslehre
  • Volume 9: Pädagogik
  • Volume 10: System der Ethik
  • Volume 11: Vom Aufgang des geschichtlichen Bewußtseins
  • Volume 12: Zur preußischen Geschichte
  • Volume 13: Leben Schleiermachers. Erster Band
  • Volume 14: Leben Schleiermachers. Zweiter Band
  • Volume 15: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 16: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 17: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 18: Die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte
  • Volume 19: Grundlegung der Wissenschaften vom Menschen, der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte
  • Volume 20: Logik und System der philosophischen Wissenschaften
  • Volume 21: Psychologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft
  • Volume 22: Psychologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft
  • Volume 23: Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie
  • Volume 24: Logik und Wert
  • Volume 25: Dichter als Seher der Menschheit
  • Volume 26: Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung

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